Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.


[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

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Let’s Not Fail School Safety as We Have School Reform

[NOTE: This was submitted to and rejected by The State. I find that the articles and commentaries on gun control and school safety are mainly absent evidence/research, and too often the media allows unsupported claims to some because of status, not credibility. See this horrible commentary, for example.]

Political and public responses to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida are poised to make the same mistakes we have witnessed concerning school reform for four decades: focusing on in-school policies and practices only while ignoring the social impact on schools as well as the research base on those policies and practices.

As one example, Will Britt argued (The State):

My recommendations are all achievable and avoid the most controversial ideas, so that they have a chance of happening…: Install metal detectors, restrict campus and building access and connect 360-degree interior and exterior video monitoring for every public school.

And a letter to editor a couple days later suggested: “The only answer is to secure the schools like other government buildings. The shooters know schools are largely gun-free zones that have no immediate defense.”

However, the research base on security measures offers chilling facts about these solutions:

There is no clear evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence, and little is known about the potential for unintended consequences that may accompany their adoption.

In fact,

Research has found security strategies, such as the use of security guards and metal detectors, to be consistently ineffective in protecting students and to be associated with more incidents of school crime and disruption and higher levels of disorder in schools.

For example,

Surveillance cameras in schools may have the effect of simply moving misbehavior to places in schools or outside of schools that lack surveillance. Even more troubling, it’s possible that cameras may function as enticement to large-scale violence, such as in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter who mailed video images of himself to news outlets.

While adding security measures is a compelling emotional (and politically effective) argument, those measures may create a false sense of security and even increase the likelihood of violence. This parallels the abundance of evidence that more guns do not make us safe, but create more gun violence.

Equally important but often unmentioned, increased school security measures are typically racially biased and unfairly target black and Latinx students, even when these populations are not more violent.

US crime rates are below normal in international comparisons, but mass shootings, school shootings, and gun violence are all extreme outliers when compared to those counties. The US also has a much higher rate of police shooting and killing citizens (see Germany).

We once again face the harsh reality that, yes, the amount of guns and easy gun access are at the source of why mass and school shootings have become common place in our country, but not in other countries.

Consider that other countries have mental illness and all the complications associated with formal schooling, suggesting that these factors cannot be blamed for our gun violence. Notably, people with mental illness are less violent than the rest of the population but are far more prone to being victims of violence.

Yet, mass shootings and school shootings have more than guns in common; most of these tragedies can also be linked to angry white males who feel a sense of privilege, once combined with easy access to guns results in the loss of innocent lives.

The Parkland, Florida shooter’s violent outburst also confronts us with a truly disturbing message since the shooter himself had gone through active shooter training and knew better how to stalk his victims. Again, implementing safety measures are unlikely to make students safer and can even put them in worse danger.

Ultimately, we must resist the fatalism that gun control will not work, or that there is nothing we can do. I cannot stress enough that other countries have effectively curbed gun violence and school shootings.

As Bryan Warnick, Benjamin A. Johnson, and Sam Rocha conclude, “instead of trying to find solutions to school shootings in the dubious arms of security technologies, or even solely through more promising public policy, society should ask deeper questions about the nature of education and schooling in American society.”

More guns mean more violence, in society and schools. Gun-free zones are one approach worth considering for in-school solutions, but that simply will not be enough.

Each mass and school shooting in the US is a damning lesson we seem to refuse to learn, and as long as we focus on school policies and practices while ignoring the cancer of our larger gun culture as well as the research on what works and what doesn’t, we are doomed to mourning more needlessly lost lives.

Political, public, and media negligence is complicit in those tragedies.

NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the unexpected win by Donald Trump, “fake news” has become a rallying cry for many, including Trump and even mainstream media.

Struggling to survive, for example, The New York Times launched an aggressive campaign for subscribers by setting the incredibly low bar of not being fake news. Like the NYT, NPR sits among the much maligned mainstream media also discounted as “liberal media.”

But here is the most disturbing fact of all: Mainstream media may in fact not be fake news, and there is abundant evidence they are not agents of progressivism or liberalism either; however, as can be witnessed on the NYT’s Op-Ed page almost daily, the truth is that mainstream media is:

Case in point: Claudio Sanchez’s The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught for NPR* with the lede paragraph announcing:

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.

Problem 1: The piece immediately bows to NAEP data because, as has become common, everyone including politicians, the media, and the public simply accepts that test scores are accurate reflections of learning. This assumption fails because high-stakes testing mostly reflects two things: (1) the socio-economic status of the students, their families, and their communities (not learning, not student quality, not teacher quality, not school quality), and (2) a reduced and inauthentic version of the so-called skill (such as reading) we claim to be measuring.

Standardized testing of reading is, to be blunt, horrible—both in terms of how it ruins reading for children and how it is actually one of the key sources for the problem Seidenberg misdiagnoses.

Problem 2: “Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his latest book, Language at the Speed of Sight, he points out that the “science of reading” can be a difficult concept for educators to grasp.”

Seidenberg joins a long and disturbing tradition of know-it-alls from outside education (typically from psychology, economics, or political science) who, like Columbus, discover a field and weigh in as if that field’s scholars and practitioners never existed; just recall the NYT itself ogling in awe at Daniel Willingham’s book on reading.

Problem 3: Seidenberg claims: “I’ve reviewed the science of reading and documented how little impact it has had on educational practice, and I think this is bad.”

One of the most significant failures of journalism and scholars in one field leaping into another field is the lack of historical and practical understanding of the field. What if I told you that Lou LaBrant, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a prominent scholar and practitioner in literacy from the 1920s until the 1970s, wrote in 1947: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

The great irony of Seidenberg’s claims is that he stumbled onto a valid premise, but in his rush to know everything, he has badly jumbled the explanation.

Problem 4: Seidenberg also joins a long list of people who have no credible understanding of the field of literacy and mangle definitions in order to have something to argue about. Here, Seidenberg simply doesn’t know the field, as he demonstrates: “The political solution was called ‘balanced literacy,’ which called on teachers to use the best of both approaches. But it left it up to teachers who had been trained to dismiss phonics and brush off the science.”

In fact, once again, he initially is onto something and then falls flat. Balanced literacy, like its cousin whole language, fully embraces phonics instruction, but recognizes that professional educators must know each student in order to balance what instruction any student needs in order to become an eager and proficient independent reader; for example:

Problem 5: Along with the arrogance of their non-education fields, Seidenberg and Willingham represent an ugly dynamic whereby men suggest (or even directly claim) that an entire field simply isn’t capable of handling the science of their own profession—and since the field of literacy is mostly women, this problem smacks of mansplaining.

So let’s end with the valid problem Seidenberg thinks he has discovered—the gap between the research on teaching reading and how reading is taught in schools.

I can offer two related better explanations.

First, I taught high school English for 18 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the foundational decades of the current education reform accountability era. Since 2002, I have been a teacher educator, primarily working with future teachers of English.

As a teacher educator, my candidates share with me a fact of moving from teacher education courses into the real world of teaching that Seidenberg and NPR may find interesting; it goes something like this: “Dr. Thomas, I agree with all the things you taught us about teaching reading and writing, but I am not allowed to do any of that at my school.”

“Not allowed”? Hmmm. Let’s investigate that.

Applebee and Langer conducted several expansive studies of how writing is taught in secondary schools, and their 2013 volume Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms included one incredibly powerful finding: Teachers of English know more than ever about the science and research on teaching writing, but those teachers revealed to Applebee and Langer that the expectations of standards and high-stakes testing prevented them from implementing that best practice.

In other words, that gap between research and practice can easily be traced to the negative impact of accountability—not to shoddy education programs, not to literacy teachers who are unable to grasp the heady science of teaching reading.

Mainstream media share with fields such as psychology (economics and political science as well) a not-so-subtle disrespect for education as a field and K-12 teachers. NPR’s article and Seidenberg’s research are condescending and incomplete because of that lack of respect.

As a educator, I must stress that their eagerness to wag their fingers at teachers and teacher education programs may be distracting us from their own shoddiness, especially dumpster fires like mainstream media that can see no better goal for themselves than not being fake news.

Yes, fake news is a problem, but lazy, irresponsible journalism may be a much bigger threat to our democracy and our schools.


See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

* The “again” in the title refers in part to the Twitter exchange I had with an NPR journalist (at the time) and the problem with journalists claiming objectivity or neutrality:

 

Testing, the Problem Not the Solution

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Imagine a world where being a runner is held in high regard, well above students’ aptitude in reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.

Teacher A at XYZ Elementary School takes her third-grade class out to the school track, lining them up to run the 100-meter dash to set a baseline of data for determining the fastest runners in the class.

Across town at ABC Elementary School, Teacher Z ushers her third-graders to the high school to establish her baseline data, sending off these children on 2 laps of the 5K cross country trails.

Mid-year, Student J transfers from XYZ Elementary School, where J had placed 1st in the initial 100-meter dash, to ABC Elementary School just in time for the year-end 10K to assign final grades.

J had excelled all year in the 40-yard dash, but floundered at the 10K, not able to finish the run and receiving an I for third grade, thus was retained.

In this brief allegory, we should confront the realities about high-stakes testing that are often muted by our blind faith in the perennial existence of tests such as IQ testing, state standards-based testing, and college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT:

  • Regardless of standards, curriculum, textbooks, or even what teachers teach in the classroom, as Gerald Bracey has warned: What you test is what you get (WYTIWYG).
  • The testing format and context (see above the 100-meter dash v. a 10K) have a significant impact on the outcomes; in the thought experiment, which student is labeled a “fast runner” changes because of the type of test, not necessarily the abilities or even effort by the teachers and the students.
  • Pre- and post-testing are not as effective or fair as we tend to assume—notably since the real world includes a great deal of transient students. (Caution: A universal set of standards, curriculum, and tests may solve this problem, but cannot address the first two bullets above.)
  • What is tested and how are always political decisions by some authority in power. This confirms that all testing is political and that no testing is objective or neutral.
  • Testing is always reductive (giving evaluative power to a limited but claimed representative set of acts over behaviors that require more time and greater nuance) and serves mostly goals of efficiency, not goals of authenticity.

Now let’s turn to the soap opera that is education reform, fatally committed to the accountability paradigm (ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests—all promised to be better than those before, even as those before were declared the best ever)

First, let’s visit Chicago, PARCC pushback prompts Illinois to remake controversial test for 3rd-8th graders:

Math and reading exams known as PARCC spawned angst and outright rebellion when the tests launched in 2015, ushering in a new era of state testing in Illinois public schools.

But that new era appears to be short-lived, with this spring’s PARCC exams possibly the last for the state’s third- to eighth-grade students, educators say.

Here is yet one more brick removed from the crumbling wall of Common Core—a standards revolution that guaranteed world-class standards and tests that would usher in a new era of education reform across the U.S.

Next, and related, while the Common Core wall crumbles, and the concurrent rush to hold teachers accountable for student test scores on those Common Core tests flounders, one of the primary advocates and funders of the Common Core disaster has been Bill Gates and his foundation.

Interesting to note, then, that once again, as Nancy Flanagan details, Gates has changed his tune in the wake of his most recent promises failing:

Looks like Bill Gates, having totally solved the common standards problem, mastered the vexing “teacher evaluation using student test data” challenge, and designed right-sized schools, is now moving deeper into the heart of what has traditionally been teachers’ core professional work. Curriculum, that is.

“Our goal is to work with the field to make sure that five years from now, teachers at every level in secondary school have high-quality aligned curriculum in English, math, and science,” Bill Gates said in a speech last fall, describing curriculum as “an area where we feel like we’ve underinvested.”

And third, even internationally, the default urge in education reform is not only new testing, but more: Setting more exams to combat stress among school students is utterly absurd.

As I warned three years ago, Tests don’t improve learning. And PARCC will be no different.

In fact, educators for well over three decades have warned that accountability driven by standards and high-stakes testing has never been the appropriate reform mechanism for the core problems facing universal public education: crippling inequity in both the lives and formal education of the most vulnerable students.

Tests, then, are the problem and not the solution.

Tests are a distraction, keeping our gaze on students and teachers and away from the inherent inequity of the tests themselves—instruments of those in power who decide what matters and how by what is tested and how.

In education, the problem has never been about the quality of tests (or standards, or curriculum, or textbooks) but about the presence of those tests and the power they wield.

We remain trapped in refusing to learn the bitter lessons from chasing better tests.


See Also

Thinking about Tests and Testing: A Short Primer in “Assessment Literacy,” Gerald Bracey

Seventeen reasons why football is better than high school, Herb Childress

When Think Tank Opinion on Policy Is Driven by Advocacy, Refute Them: A Reader

Last night in my new upper-level writing course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, we waded into critical discourse analysis, followed by practicing those moves on a picture book, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type.

Next, we shifted to small groups so students could also practice analyzing media coverage of education—a key component of their assignments that require comparing media narratives about key education topics to the research base on that topic. I provided the small groups with an Op-Ed on teacher recruitment and retention from the local paper and 10 (More) Reasons Why the U.S. Education System Is Failing from Education Week.

One group noticed this EdWeek commentary cited The Brookings Institute, and as I and one of our texts (Bracey, 2006) have stressed, when analyzing media claims about educational research, we must all critically investigate anything coming from think tanks.

So I was primed for my Twitter feed this morning when I noticed Peter Greene’s Still Pushing the Common Core—a sharp and thorough unpacking of The Brookings Institutes’ misguided When public opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them:

Among the living dead that stumble through the graveyard of failed education ideas, we can still find our old friend, the Common Core State [sic] Standards. Like an undead Tinker Bell, as long as someone’s willing to clap for the damned thing, it will keep coming back.

This time the applause is coming from Brookings, an institution devoted to the notion that economists can be experts in anything. The actual research they’re highlighting was produced by a research grant from the USC Rossier School of Education, and written up by Stephen Aguilar, Morgan Polikoff, and Gale Sinatra, all of the Rossier School. Polikoff is a familiar name in the ed reform world, and he can sometimes be found conducting serious research. This is not one of those times.

Echoing Greene’s last point, I stressed last night that Brookings often produced solid reports, despite Greene’s caution (“economists can be experts in anything”); in fact, I routinely promote the work of Andre Perry, a Brookings Fellow.

After reading Greene’s analysis, I clicked on the Brookings report and immediately scanned the footnotes, noticing that the report includes none of the thorough reports and comprehensive research on two very important issues related to the Common Core debate: (1) the standards movement has shown over more than three decades of constantly creating and implementing new standards that there is almost no clear correlation between the quality or presence of standards and better student outcomes, and (2) careful analyses of Common Core have shown that these standards show no promise of overcoming that clear trend.

Instead of taking the necessary larger step back and away from the cult of accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing, as Greene explains:

The paper purports to be about correcting misperceptions and misunderstandings about public policy, but I think it’s better understood as a study of how to better sculpt PR to market your policy idea. And in this case they’re looking at how to better manage the PR for Common Core.

Yes, as someone who lives in the Tea-Party-turned-Trumplandia Upstate of South Carolina, I witnessed the yard signs protesting the Common Core, a heaping mess of anti-Obama misconceptions.

But what Brookings fails to acknowledge, trapped as they are in the “better standards” delusion, is that Common Core advocates were mostly just as misinformed as the ideologues attacking Common Core as a proxy for the Obama agenda.

Why not conduct some research on that? Maybe: When political opinion on policy is driven by misconceptions, refute them.

Or better yet: Bitter lessons from chasing better standards [1].

(Hint: Think tanks are mostly all-in on education reform for the sake of education reform and too often bereft of critical education scholars.)

And thus, here is another hint: In this Groundhog Day adventure in standards [2], there has been absolutely no absence of solid evidence-based and critical responses to the Common Core movement. The problem, repeated again by this Brookings report, is the “rigid refusal” to acknowledge the failure of the accountability/standards/high-stakes testing silo approach to education reform.

Along with suggesting you read Greene, then, let me offer a reader, one I am certain will once again be ignored since it makes a case the education reform crowd simply does not want to acknowledge:

Finally, there is a nugget in this Brookings misfire that deserves some attention:

Despite largely falling off the political radar (neither President Trump nor Secretary DeVos has talked much about Common Core in the last year except to say that it is dead),[3] the standards are still an important topic. More than 40 states are still implementing the standards or a very close variant thereof.[4] Billions are still being spent on curriculum materials and professional development.

As I noted in the AlterNet piece linked above, the pursuit of better (and ever-new) standards and better (and ever-new) high-stakes tests is mostly a financial boondoggle for the textbook and testing industries as well as a careless financial drain on educational funding (tax-payers’ money).

Framing any standards debate, then, as simply a PR problem is more than lazy; it is careless and ultimately yet another remedy that is part of the disease.


[1] Bitter Lessons from Chasing Better Tests

[2] I am seeking a second-level metaphor since Greene aptly used the zombie comparison.

The Politics of Education Policy: Even More Beware the Technocrats

Man Prefers Comic Books That Don’t Insert Politics Into Stories About Government-Engineered Agents Of War (The Onion) includes a simple picture of a 31-year-old white male with the hint of a soon-to-be Van Dyke:

The fictional “man,” Jeremy Land, explains:

“I’m tired of simply trying to enjoy escapist stories in which people are tortured and experimented upon at black sites run by authoritarian governments, only to have the creators cram political messages down my throat,” said Land, 31, who added that Marvel’s recent additions of female, LGBTQ, and racially diverse characters to long-running story arcs about tyrannical regimes turning social outsiders into powerful killing machines felt like PC propaganda run amok. “Look, I get that politics is some people’s thing, but I just want to read good stories about people whose position outside society makes them easy prey for tests run by amoral government scientists—without a heavy-handed allegory for the Tuskegee Study thrown in. Why can’t comics be like they used to and just present worlds where superheroes and villains, who were clearly avatars for the values of capitalism, communism, or fascism, battle each other in narratives that explicitly mirrored the complex geopolitical dynamics of the Cold War?”

The satire here is the whitesplaining/mansplaining inherent in the politics of calling for no politics.

It strains the imagination only slightly to understand how this commentary on comic book fanboys also parallels the persistent combination in education of calling for no politics while using policy and a narrow definition of data and evidence to mask the racial and gender politics of formal schooling.

Let’s imagine, then, instead of the fictional Land an image of David Coleman (who parlayed his Common Core boondoggle into a cushy tenure as the head of the College Board) or John Hattie (he of the “poverty and class size do not matter” cults that provide Hattie with a gravy train as guru-consultant).

A close reading of David Coleman’s mug shot reveals a whole lot of smug.

In his “visible learning” hustle, John Hattie likely prefers to keep his enormous profits invisible.

Coleman and Hattie as technocrats feed the systemic racism, classism, and sexism in formal education policy and practice by striking and perpetuating an objective pose that serves as a veneer for the normalized politics of political and economic elites in the U.S.

As Daniel E. Ferguson examines, Coleman’s Common Core propaganda, the rebranded traditional mis-use of New Criticism into “close reading,” argues:

Close reading, as it appears in the Common Core, requires readers to emphasize “what lies within the four corners of the text” and de-emphasize their own perspective, background, and biases in order to uncover the author’s meaning in the text.

However, Ferguson adds,

Critical reading, in contrast, concerns itself with those very differences between what does and does not appear in the text. Critical reading includes close reading; critical reading is close reading of both what lies within and outside of the text. For Paulo Freire, critical reading means that “reading the world always precedes reading the word, and reading the word implies continually reading the world.”

And thus, close reading serves the cult of efficiency found in the high-stakes standardized testing industry that depends on the allure of believing all texts have singular meanings that can be assessed in multiple-choice formats—a dymanic Ferguson unmasks: “The story beyond the four corners of Coleman’s video is one of a man whose agenda is served by teachers following a curriculum that requires students to read in a way assessable through standardized tests he oversees and profits from.”

Simultaneously, of course, keeping students and teachers laser-focused on text only detracts them from the richer context of Martin Luther King Jr. and the broader implications of racism and classism informed by and informing King’s radical agenda.

Simply stated, close reading is a political agenda embedded in the discourse of objectivity that whitewashes King and denies voice and agency to King, teachers, and students.

Concurrently, Hattie’s catch phrase, “visible learning,” serves the same political agenda: Nothing matters unless we can observe and quantify it (of course, conveniently omitting that this act itself determines what is allowed to be seen—not the impact of poverty or the consequences of inequity, of course).

Hattie’s garbled research and data [1] match the recent efforts in education reform to isolate student learning as the value added (VAM) by individual teachers, yet another off-spring of the cult of efficiency manifested in high-stakes standardized testing.

Just as many have debunked the soundness of Hattie’s data and statistics, the VAM experiment has almost entirely failed to produce the outcomes it promised (see the school choice movement, the charter school movement, the standards movement, etc.).

Coleman and Hattie work to control what counts and what matters—the ultimate in politics—and thus are welcomed resources for those benefitting from inequity and wishing to keep everyone’s gaze on anything except that inequity.

The misogyny and racism among comic book fanboys allows the sort of political ignorance reflected in The Onion‘s satire.  If we remain “within the four corners of the text” of Marvel’s Captain America, for example, we are ignoring that, as I have examined, “Captain America has always been a fascist. … But … Captain America has always been our fascist, and that is all that matters.”

The politics of education policy seeks to point the accusatory finger at other people’s politics, and that politics of policy is served by the technocrats, such as Coleman and Hattie, who feed and are fed by the lie of objectivity, the lie of no politics.


[1] See the following reviews and critiques of Hattie’s work:

The Fourth Lie, and What Hope Truth?

The irony of truth may often be more impressive than truth itself. Consider the pithy truism “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

While the snark of this aphorism certainly spurs us toward a kind of truth about the misuse of numbers, ironically, the words themselves are typically associated with Mark Twain, who did popularize the phrasing, but certainly was not the original source; and to make this more complex, it seems no clear source has been identified.

And while it is now in vogue to debate the rise of fake news and how we find ourselves in a post-truth society, the jumbled relationship between mainstream media and truth/fake news reaches well back into the 1800s.

We seem unable even to face the truth about fake news.

As an educator and writer (one who ventures, foolishly, into public discourse), I have a long and frustrating relationship with a fourth kind of lie: Things people just believe, regardless of the evidence otherwise.

Over three decades, for example, I have talked patiently on the phone with education journalists—from The New York Times to state and local newspapers—who responded to evidence-based arguments with equal parts shock (“I have never heard that before”) and disbelief.

Here are some of the public claims I have doggedly shared for decades now:

  • Education is not the great equalizer; in fact, home and community conditions combined with race, gender, and other individual characteristics are far more powerful influences than school or teacher impact on both academic outcomes by students and then their status after formal education.
  • In-school education reform is destined to fail if out-of-school factors remain unaddressed due to a lack of political and public will to confront systemic inequity with public policy reform.
  • Accountability, standards (always changing), high-stakes testing (also, always changing), and grades are all flawed mechanisms for insuring universal public education in the pursuit of democracy, individual agency, and equity.
  • Formal schooling reflects and perpetuates the norms of community it serves; formal schooling almost never proves to be a change agent.
  • The type of schooling—public, charter, private—tends not to determine educational quality; school quality (typically determined by narrow measures such as student test scores) remains mostly bound to the characteristics of the students and communities being served. As a concurrent fact, there are no “miracle” schools.
  • Formal education must remain a commitment to public institutions; market forces are inappropriate for insuring all children have an equitable opportunity to learn.

Repeatedly, however, these claims, all strongly supported by significant bodies of research, elicit, at best, my being discounted as just a “critic,” and at worst, my being framed as some sort of enemy of reform out to protect anyone or anything except children, a cursed “defender of the status quo.”

And there was also too often crass nastiness, anger, and of course, lies.

Since education in practice is the result of state and public policy (driven, typically, by public and political narratives and beliefs—see lie four), here is a larger truism I have repeated for years with responses again running from disbelief to anger: The Obama education policy and discourse were just as misguided and harmful as the W. Bush education policy and discourse.

Toward the end of Obama’s administration, in fact, I had moved past skepticism and solidly into cynicism in terms of whether any journalists or politicians would set aside their beliefs (the fourth lie) and confront the truth about education and education reform.

However, in the fall of 2016, I noticed what I felt at the time was a crack in charter school support and began drafting a proposal that this was a harbinger of the end of the accountability era.

Before that piece was published, Trump was elected president, and my spark of hope soon looked like fool’s gold. In fact, I was embarrassed to have momentarily felt a glimmer of hope.

A year into Trumplandia, with a Department of Education and Secretary of Education that make the dumpster fires that were the DOE and SOE under W. Bush and Obama look like “the good ol’ days,” the irony has reached a new level.

Despite the market-based agenda under Trump/DeVos, the crack in charter school support has now been joined by mainstream pushback against testing and even grades; as well, recent arguments against the “tyranny of metrics” seem to match the case I and other educators/scholars have posed since the early 1980s when Reagan ushered in the accountability era for education reform.

Irony, in fact, seems to be trumped by the absurd—this from Trump-supporting South Carolina conservative (and Foghorn Leghorn impersonator) Governor Henry McMaster, as reported by Cindi Scoppe at The State:

So it was no surprise that the best part of [McMaster’s] first State of the State address was the way he framed public education. He could have been channeling so many teachers when he talked about the role poverty and parents play in how well children do in school. “Poverty,” he said, “is the enemy of education; some of our children, through no fault of their own, live in circumstances so bleak that intellectual stimulation and learning are but fleeting experiences. Ultimately, gainful employment of the parents or adults in the home offers the surest deliverance of the child into educated society.”

But he didn’t use that as an excuse for failure, noting instead that: “Good teachers and good principals clearly are the key to success. There is rarely a child who will not or cannot be taught. The key is not trying to pour knowledge in, but rather opening eyes and imaginations and letting eagerness and fascination out. A good teacher can do this.”

Unlike Scoppe, I am shocked, damned shocked.

Poverty, McMaster seems to concede, is an essential and powerful force determining the education of children in SC. But let’s also unpack that he still idealizes “[g]ood teachers and good principals” as “key[s] to success.”

Yes, teachers and principals matter, but as I have argued and as the evidence shows, they rarely have causal impact that can be measured because of out of school factors and other systemic forces such as racism and sexism.

And let’s not ignore that McMaster remains trapped in the fourth lie because he believes in market forces and fails to put his rhetoric into practice with actual policy (embracing instead tax cuts that certainly will erode any hopes of effective education policy).

Creeping into 2018, I am trying to regain my skepticism, a first step toward hope that truth can rise through all this muck, decades of muck.

Lies, I recognize, have the upper hand—lies, damned lies, statistics, and what people just stubbornly and blindly believe—but truth seems to be resilient.

At least it seems pretty to think so.